By Thomas Gerbasi, photo by Hoganphotos
It’s been over nine months since his last fight against Danny Green, but Antonio Tarver has never been one to let go of past slights.
“I went into the Green fight a 5 to 1 underdog,” said an incredulous Tarver, who went to Green’s backyard of Australia last July and knocked his foe out in the ninth round. “5 to 1 underdog? The whole country could have come back right (if it would have bet on him).”
Then comes the laugh, one like no other in the boxing business. It’s probably the best part about talking to the former light heavyweight champion, a genuine and infectious bellow that only comes slightly ahead of the second best part of talking to him: his passion for the game.
Whether you agree with him or not, there is no disputing the fact that Tarver cares. About his craft, his legacy, about anything he puts his hands on and time into. You have to respect that.
“The passion never left,” said the 43-year old from Tampa, who is currently preparing for his Showtime main event on June 2nd against unbeaten Lateef Kayode. “It’s always been there. The passion to be champ, the passion to win, the passion to go down in history as one of the great fighters of this era. All that still drives me. I’m still winning championships. They want to put me in the same category as a Roy Jones, as a James Toney, and these characters. And it’s not even the same. I ain’t seen one of those guys winning a title or come close to winning a title of any sort in years. How can they be calling for me to retire? Are they kidding?”
Tarver is one of the last 40-somethings of his era still standing. Fans have been calling for Toney to retire for years. Jones has lost three of his last four, two by knockout. Glen Johnson has dropped three of his last four as well, and Bernard Hopkins recently lost his title to Chad Dawson. Tarver, winner of five of his last seven, with the only losses being back-to-back decision defeats against Dawson, is perhaps just a win over Kayode away from another big fight. And if he fights the way he did against Green, he isn’t likely to be a 5 to 1 underdog on the oddsmakers’ sheets.
And it’s not that he has been remarkably blessed with a fountain of youth to keep him from the ravages of age, but the facts are there. He did turn pro very late at 28, he has “only” 35 pro bouts, and he hasn’t been in a host of brutal wars.
“I’ve taken care of myself and I really haven’t been abused in the ring,” he said. “I’ve never been dominated in a fight. My worst performance was against Hopkins and I don’t know what happened that night but something happened and that’s it. Other than that, I have the best defense in the business, and I’ve stayed 16 years in the pro game and never been cut, never had my nose broken, never been unconscious, and never been dropped where I was hurt to the point that they had to count over me. People don’t understand that it takes a gift, it takes a talent to be in the game this long and to have been as successful as I have. I know who I am, and I’m a great fighter, whether they ever admit it or not. I’ve been doing this since I was 10 years old and I’ve been the best on all levels. It’s not by accident that I’m here. I can fight and I know the game back and forth.”
Perhaps most importantly, he also knows that at 43, he can’t train like he did when he was a kid.
“It takes a little while longer to get into tip top shape and you have to do it smartly and have to do it gradually,” he said of life in the 40’s. “It’s not gonna happen overnight, and right now, we’re just training smarter rather than training harder. I’m not beating myself up.”
He’s keeping an open mind in the gym as well, with trainers Jimmy Williams and Buddy McGirt both keeping him on his toes with new techniques and strategies and even some old school stuff here and there.
“You always can learn,” he said. “Even if it’s learning stuff you forgot (Laughs), you never stop learning no matter how long you’ve been in the game. And I think the key to the longevity is that when you get tired of suffering then you need to hang it up. I still don’t mind suffering and I still suffer in the gym in preparation for my fights. I work hard, and the sacrifices I make are still as significant as they were when I started. When that stuff gets tiring and you want to slack off and not do the things that are necessary, then you gotta hang ‘em up.”
Tarver’s not looking at that option right now though, not with a high-profile headliner against Kayode coming up. On paper, the 29-year old Nigerian has the hunger and style to find out whether 43 is just a number for “The Magic Man,” but then again, people said that about the Green fight. The way Tarver sees it, 18 pro fights aren’t nearly enough for Kayode to be ready for what he’s bringing to the Home Depot Center next month.
“He ain’t the bully coming into this fight,” he said of Kayode. “He thinks he’s the bully, but I knock bullies out because they don’t know how tough I am. You can’t take my heart. That ain’t ever gonna happen. So he’s coming in here with a false sense of security, and I’m gonna put his ass in check early and often in this fight.”
It’s vintage Tarver, whose mouth hasn’t lost a step at all over the years. Then there’s that laugh again, followed by a statement of intent that he will do whatever it takes to stick to. If he succeeds, he may never stop talking.
“If they can’t beat you, they can’t stop you,” said Tarver, now fighting at cruiserweight. “I’m on a mission right now. I’m gonna clean up this cruiserweight division, then I’m gonna clean up the heavyweight division, and I’m bringing the heavyweight title back to America. That’s my quest. What are they gonna do when I win the heavyweight title? What are they gonna say then, when I beat Wladimir Klitschko? He told us so. (Laughs) They can ignore me all they want. I’m coming.”
In other words, if you’re getting on the bandwagon, the time is now, because he won’t have any problem turning you away if you’re not with him. It’s this blunt appraisal of any situation that has garnered him a Twitter following of over 13,000 and counting. And he’s enjoying every minute of it as well, begging the question, what would he have done with social media if it were around when he was chasing down his longtime nemesis Jones?
“I’d be a Twitter phenomenon,” he laughs. But with that ship sailed, the rivalry settled, and the two men in distinctly different stages in their careers, Tarver moves on, and hopefully forward. Ne insists that when it’s time to go, he’ll go. Maybe not quietly, but he’ll go. But until then, you’re just going to have to deal with him.
“When I lose my quest to become heavyweight champion, I’m gonna ride off into the sunset,” said Tarver. “But I’m gonna get my shot, trust me. I’m gonna do everything I have to do, continue to win, until they cannot deny me. And that’s what I’m focused on.”